Saturday, September 19, 2009

Glee: new TV show--no spoilers review; B+

"Glee" is a new dramedy about lovable losers making it in a typical American high school by banding together in a show choir.

So the show's title should be "Show choir" if accuracy mattered most. But that's not a high concept title, so "Glee" it is.

So--should you give it a whirl?

Yes if you love music--especially pop/rock choral harmony/Broadway stuff. Most of the singing cast--including nearly all the leads--appears to have been chosen for their pipes. Go to YouTube and search on "Don't Stop Believing Glee." If it knocks you out, watch an episode, each of which has several similar numbers. But "Don't Stop Believing" is their best so far, I think, and it should tell you whether you're in the target audience or not. I love Journey's original and their current redo as well, but Glee's version is very strong, and stands in its own right. The performance that goes with it is cute as well.

Moreover, several cast members have lead singer-class voices, while others are good but not so good that it seems out of keeping with their characters. Their teacher is also a very good singer. And so are several of his teacher peers (think of the quartet in "Scrubs" that livens up that show's proceedings frequently).

I should add that the soundtrack for the show is entirely a capella choir-sung. It's fabulous--by far the best of any current show on TV. I actually like "Smallville's" close-to-grand opera sound track, which is the polar opposite of the light-hearted, unique sound of "Glee." Both achieve their goals.

I do have quibbles with some of the numbers--they cover Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" in a way that's appropriate to people who've never needed rehab, so it's right for the story, but in no way captures Winehouse's authenticity. They cover Rihanna's "Give the boy a hand" in a way that I don't think matches the lyrics--and Rihanna's own performance of the song is so nuanced and compelling they needed a boatload of chutzpah just to tackle it. Their version isn't bad, mind you. It didn't make me cringe. But I would have liked it better if I weren't familiar with the original.

And yes if you miss "Pushing Daisies." This isn't a fantasy show, but it partakes of the loopy, broad-yet-touching humor of that show (and "Glee" does have fantasy sequences). Also yes if you love the new Toyota ads with the a capella, wordless sound tracks and the hordes of dancing children dressed as flowers and clouds and rivers with whitecaps.

I know, the plot concept is hackneyed. But as with most everything, execution counts, and this is executed well. It's both uplifting and snarky--a great combo in my book. And the love triangle that's a key plotline is morally complex--none of the three are a "good guy" or a "bad guy." They're like us. That's a breath of fresh air for a Hollywood series. So it's also broad humor and moral complexity.

Also yes if you like to see characters who don't all come out the CW network's gorgeous cookie cutter casting bucket. I love looking at beautiful people--after all, I'm genetically programmed that way, just as you are--but if the character is supposed to be not beautiful, it doesn't cut it to just take someone beautiful and do up their hair in a severe bun and park a set of thick glasses on them, all in preparation for the slo-mo sequence later on when the specs come off and the hair comes out to play in glamorous head-tossed shampoo commercial swirls.

Here the fat black girl is--who knew?--fat and black. The overdetermined female lead singer of the choir has the Broadway look--not pretty enough for the unforgiving lens of a movie camera, but fine seen at a distance on a stage, given great pipes and the ability to project, and that she's got in spades. The cripple isn't a cripple, but that doesn't show, and he's certainly geeky enough. All the adults in the triangle are attractive enough but not in Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston territory (nor, as I said, in CW territory).

OTOH, if you don't live for music and find broad comedy exasperating and are a stickler for plot consistency, maybe you won't like it. It's a little over the top, just as show choirs are. And it ain't Shakespeare, nor does it partake of the ashcan school of downbeat realism that produced, for example, "Homcide: Life on the Streets"--which I also loved.

A lot of comedy is about people being publicly humiliated, and a little of that goes a long way for me. This has a touch of that, but it's focused more on people with problems actually trying to solve those problems as best they can. It doesn't solve things magically--there's lots of struggle here. But at least it's not hopeless. I'd call the show big hearted.

I hope this tells you whether you should watch an episode of "Glee." Or at least listen to the YouTube clips. And I also hope this review doesn't spoil any surprises for you, which I think should be a critic's first principle (like Asimov's Laws of Robotics).

Don't stop believing...

Friday, September 18, 2009

2001: a great movie in Cinerama--troubles on TV

The movie "2001" exemplifies the problems with watching on a TV set a movie made to be seen in a movie theater.

Honestly, many if not most movies made today are designed to look good on a TV screen. "District 9" comes to mind.

It's easy to tell if a movie was made to be watched easily on a TV: it's shot in mostly medium and close-up shots. We watched "District 9" in a theater and it felt like half the time I was looking at gigantic 20 foot high heads. I would have preferred it on our widescreen TV at home, in fact.

But 2001 is the exact opposite. It was made purely to be seen on a Cinerama screen, without no compromises and no thought to future DVD sales.

Imax screens are--traditionally at least--53 feet high by 72 feet wide. Cinerama is 33 feet high by a whopping 89 feet wide, on a screen that curves around you, so if you sit in the right place it occupies 146 degrees of your field of vision.

To get that experience at home you'd have to sit less than two feet from your big screen TV, then break it out of its frame to wrap it around you. And of course you'd have to have at least a six-speaker home theater system to go along with that.

This isn't possible. So what we're left with is watching a film that was magnificent in Cinerama looking like a miniaturized shadow of its former self.

"2001" moves at a stately pace. If you're sitting in a Cinerama theatre, surrounded by the film, you don't notice the passage of time. On a TV screen you're looking at it through a peephole, and what was magnificent can now seem tedious. Without that immersion we wind up looking in vain for the plot (it has one, but it proceeds slowly), unable to fully appreciate the atmospherics.

So if you've tried to watch "2001" on your big screen TV at home and wondered why it was so praised--that's why.

It also violates movie reality with real reality: that is, astronauts in "2001" talk like the highly emotionally stable engineers they are instead of with the emotive theatrics of Actors, as you see even in otherwise excellent films like "Apollo 13." Program managers speak with the kind of administrative CYA doublespeak the real ones use. So viewers accustomed to the more emotionally-charged line delivery of most movies find that it falls flat in "2001."

Current movies also tell you what's happening with the lighting and sound track at all times, then warn you what's about to happen the same way. It's nearly impossible to be actually surprised in a normal Hollywood film because of this. If you heard only the sound track of a standard Hollywood film, you could probably describe what's being seen.

But in "2001" the sound track is part of the movie, not a set of acoustic instructions, bobastically delivered, as to what you're supposed to think and feel at every second. Late in the film whole sections have almost no music, in a setting so quiet you can hear people breathing.

Lastly, in "2001" some visual tropes were introduced that now can seem cliched--a little like watching a Shakespeare play when the actors recite now-well-known lines like "To be or not to be--that is the question." It's hard to imagine the impact such lines had the very first time an audience heard them.

Thus the Stargate is now something found---and often done much better visually--on the cheesiest SyFy channel TV movies. But I saw it in Graumman's Chinese Theater first run, on that gigantic wraparound screen, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life--and I'd seen a lot of films, and it was...stunning. Stunning in a jaw-dropping kind of way I've rarely experienced since then, Michael Bay's hackneyed big-budget efforts notwithstanding.

I'm not saying not to watch "2001" on a big screen TV. I'm just saying you need to take into account what I said here, and try to let you mind make up, as best it can, for what's missing onscreen (and that includes about half of the outboard two of the three screens that comprise a Cinerama "screen").

The screen image included here is a case in point. In Cinerama, in a theater, this spaceship glided across the screen in the dim sunlight found near Jupiter. Kubrick photographed the model in a studio in that level of light--a difficult, time-consuming, costly task. But the result is more like what it would really look like than any movie before or since.

Yet at home, with a few lights on, you can hardly see the ship. It wasn't lit for viewing in a lit room--only in the level of darkness you find in a movie theater. And if you don't have a superb image on your home TV, you'll miss the exquisite detailing of the image.

See why it's so hard to watch this now? At least--if you agree with my analysis--you can understand why you didn't like it anywhere as much as those who'd seen it in Cinerama.

There are a few Cinerama theaters left in the world. You could always Google them, get their schedules, and schedule a vacation there when "2001" is showing.

Well, it's a thought...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tennis: Deep Thoughts on the U.S. Open

In his blog, Jim Fawcette discussed what the tennis players did at the U.S. Open, the last big tournament of the season. You can read it at .

I added this note:

But what about the important stuff--like their costumes?

Who can forget Sharapova's supremely stylish outfit compared to Clijster's utilitarian garb (good thing Clijsters is such a joy to watch playing)?

Curious that the men's final looked like a funeral, with two men in black as the pallbearers--er, players. We need a gay player dressed like a butterfly. Is there any rule against a man wearing a skirt?

But speaking of skirts, Caroline Wozniacki was the girliest of the women, wearing a Stella McCartney outfit that appeared to sport two skirts at once. With her dangly earrings and ponytail, she wouldn't have looked out of place at a high school dance if she'd just swapped her tennies for heels.

Her semifinal opponent, Yanina Wickmayer, gets my vote for costume of the US Open, though: she was the only woman I saw who didn't wear a skirt over her shorts. Every single woman's player wears shorts, but every single other one adds a skirt. Why? It's an anachronism. Wickmayer's outfit was stylish, color coordinated, sleek looking, avoiding the poles of Clijsters' utilitarianism and Wozniacki's estrogen on parade. Wickmayer looked like an athlete who's a woman instead of a woman who's an athlete. Props to her.

And props to the Gullickson, the hitherto unknown titan of touch who spearheaded her team's win in the mixed doubles finals. She may be too portly for singles, but she's still amazing to watch--and I think the only unseeded ultimate winner in the Open.

Lastly, I appreciated Del Potro's understated humor on the court. Nothing like Djokovic's mockage, but still a nice touch in a match that was even a marathon to watch, much less play. Fed wasn't funny at all, in contrast to his between the legs winner in the semi, which was both amusing and stunning.

The only other humor I saw was Serena joking about her foot fault imbroglio at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was a presenter Sunday evening.

I'm sure the diminutive Japanese female linesman she'd threatened to assault found Serena's comedy moment a real knee-slapper.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena Williams, Kanye West, Joe Wilson--3 of a kind

Back in the day I worked in a juvenile hall for a month. It was a tough job (which I ultimately failed at), because the kids there mostly suffered from a lack of impulse control and a lack of empathy for others.

It's not that these kids were mean, exactly. It wasn't that they were sadistic. It's just that other people were...kind of...shadows for them. Their own needs and feelings occupied, like, 99% of their consciousness.

The pity is that you don't have to go to juvie to run into people like this. You can visit the Congress of the United States while the President is addressing them--you can go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament Womens' Singles semifinal--or the MTV VMAs.

But what I really take away from the VMAs is how classy Beyonce is. Kudos to her for giving up her piece of the limelight to let Taylor Swift finish the acceptance speech Kanye West ruined for her.

And kudos to Taylor Swift. Her stuff isn't deathless, but it's heartfelt, and she's obviously a good kid. Hope she gets a song to write out this. I just wish the linesman terrorized by Serena could do the same.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vampire Diaries Pilot review--some spoilers but it doesn't matter

Gorgeous actors, gorgeous production values, like all CW shows.
Paint by the numbers plotting. Buffy/Angel had humor, irony, drama, swoony romanticism. This has all of that--except for the humor, irony, and drama.

Now if only someone would base a TV show on the stunning Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In." It was made on a smaller budget than the Vampire Diaries' pilot, I'd wager. Yet it will make chills run up your spine...and you'll still be thinking about it a month after seeing it.

Vampire Diaries, by comparison, is product.

Oh, and the magic walk-around-in-daylight ring? What a cheap shot. Talk about eliminating anything that might make the story complicated. And the idea was used in Buffy first anyway, though there it did become complicated. So I guess there's still hope.

But thus far "Vampire Diaries" goes where many have gone before.

I plan to watch a few more episodes, but I don't have a lot of hope. Still, "Dollhouse" got better.

BTW: the crow that keeps appearing in the show, that everyone in the show refers to as a crow? It's a raven. Bigger bird, bigger, heavier beak...raven. Crows are smart, ravens are smarter. More trainable. Fine. Just call it a raven then. Guess they decided "raven" was above the pay grade of the target demographics' vocabulary.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How are actors like roofers

There are three categories of American workers who generally have just a high school education: Unskilled laborers, tradesmen...and actors. I'd include professional athletes, but many do have a college degree--just without the education that's supposed to go with a degree.

So you'll see an actor who's, say, 30 years old, is a multimillionaire, has traveled the world--and knows about the same as the guy who's working on your roof.

Their education is a fly in amber, fixed forever at what we all knew at the age of 18.

That's why their opinions often sound so ludicrous. Not just politically. Everything. They know a huge amount about the craft of acting, and often a lot about the ancillary professions--hairdressing, lighting, camerawork, etc. But otherwise...well, watch the late night talk shows and you'll see what I mean. Oftentimes it's not expressed in politics so much as in weird personal tics--a fear of flying, or obsessions with something or other, ideas they picked up from the 'Net when they lacked the intellectual tools to sort the solid ideas can I put this nicely...chaff.

With exceptions, of course. For example, Natalie Portman has a BA from Harvard. I'm guessing offhand that people with deep educational or life experience run about 10% of the actors you see on TV and movies.

This is not a swipe at actors' generally liberal leanings. Except that if the left tends to be mindless and the right, heartless, it makes sense that an uneducated empath would lean left.

But when I do find that an actor does have a real education I'm always impressed, and I pay extra attention to those. It's not so much that they turn into Republicans, as that the reasons they give for their beliefs make more sense. Ben Affleck, for example, can hold an intelligent discussion about politics. I doubt Barbra Streisand can.

This problem with education is compounded by situational narcissism--skewed thinking resulting from being surrounded by bootlicking sycophants. That plus the gypsy life of movie actors makes it hard for them to pursue formal education--halfway through the semester your agent calls with a chance to work for Woody Allen on a pic that could win an Oscar. What would you do?